The USA is a country that can seem complicated for responsible tourism. I will tell you about my experience trying to be a sustainable traveler in this country.
On many occasions, I have the feeling that no matter how hard I try, it is difficult to be a sustainable traveller. Especially in certain countries like North America, where the “throwaway culture” is so prevalent. On my last trip to the USA I asked myself this question almost every day: is it possible to be a responsible tourist in the United States? In the following paragraphs I will try to give you an answer.
This last trip to the United States has been special: it has lasted two months. And during that time we have visited up to 5 North American states (California, Florida, Utah, Nevada and Arizona). We were in big cities, like Los Angeles or Miami, and small cities, like Sandford or Coarsegold. We discovered deserts, such as Mojave, and great mountains, such as Yosemite. We visited amusement parks and museums, beaches and libraries. During those 60 days we ate in cafeterias, chain restaurants, ecological establishments and bought food in supermarkets, shops and local markets. The feeling was always the same: we had to work hard not to spoil the sustainability goals we had designed for that trip.
I’m going to tell you about the problems we encountered in North America. Those things that we saw on our trip are contrary to what sustainable tourism should be. But I’m also going to provide you with alternatives and solutions so that with your grain of sand we can make great changes together.
It is important for you to remember that the United States is the third most visited country in the world, behind only Spain and France. Any change in its social, economic and environmental policies has a great influence on the travellers it receives. Think that you too can contribute to that change with a more sustainable and responsible attitude.
1.- A transoceanic journey
Visiting a country like the United States for Spaniards means doing a lot of flying. To give you an idea, a flight from Madrid to New York – round trip – means 1.69 tons of CO2 emissions.
Solution: extending your stay in the country may be the best way to offset your ecological footprint. With alternatives to traditional accommodation such as HomeExchange you can stay more days without increasing costs. Another option is to choose hotels that are not in large cities. This way you will get a better feel for the essence of the country. Taking a 4-day trip to see New York is neither sustainable nor practical. You’ll enjoy it more if you can stay at least two weeks. Global warming is a big problem that commercial aviation is increasing. I propose you less trips, but more time and higher quality.
2.- Everything is plasticized
We cannot accuse the United States exclusively of this problem. We are suffering from this problem all over the world: in every supermarket, bar or restaurant. Yes, it is true in the United States is particularly exaggerated.
Solution: One of our most difficult decisions was not to buy anything packaged in plastic. This in many supermarkets prevented us from being able to buy food such as lettuce or rocket. In the end you always find an alternative. Enjoy buying “in bulk”; it’s ecological and economical. Also bring your own toilet kit. Don’t take a different plastic toothbrush at every hotel you stay in. Greenpeace helps you calculate your plastic footprint on this link.
3.- The blissful straws
Although you could have included them in the previous section, plastic straws deserve their own. It’s a nightmare to see how each drink you buy gives you one. It doesn’t matter if you order a coffee, a milkshake, a soda…; even with whiskey or any other liqueur they put a small one in your glass.
Solution: Take yours. But not plastic, but metal. For 3 € you can buy one. They don’t take up space. They are easy to clean. And that way you will avoid consuming a product that takes 500 years to decompose and that seriously damages the marine ecosystem. And after your trip to the United States: keep using it! Spain is the European country that unfortunately consumes them the most.
4.- You need a car to move
In a gigantic country like the United States, the distances are enormous. Both within their cities and between them. The car is the most used means of locomotion. It is a religion in cities like Los Angeles, which were built for daily use. Also in small towns – because of their structure of suburbs and urbanizations – you will need one for something as basic as shopping.
Solution: The balance between renting a car in the United States and using public transportation. We only use the car when there were no other options as in the case of Monument Valley or Yosemite. In big cities you can use the pool version of Lyft and Uber. This way the trip will be cheaper and you will reduce your ecological footprint. It is also a good option to rent bikes and scooters. Although in the end our best alternative is always the same: walk! Take the opportunity to exercise on your trip. We blew up Google Fit this summer in cities like Miami: with more than 15 kilometers on average per day.
5.- How little is recycled in the USA
One of the things that most strikes a Spaniard when he travels to the United States is that trash is usually collected only once a week in private homes. Also, recycling is less intense: you’ll find that there are no containers on the streets like in Spain and that food containers – even if they are made of plastic – are not reused.
Solution: This is the most difficult point. In the streets you won’t see the typical containers you usually find in the streets of any Spanish town or village. In shopping malls and public buildings you will find litter bins where there is a division between organic, plastic and paper. I used those and the supermarket containers to leave my packaging.
6.- Disposable tableware, cutlery and glassware
Plastics is a problem, a big problem. The worst thing is that a terrible concept is associated: everything is disposable. Forks, knives, cups, plates…; all made of plastic and all made to be used and thrown away. And it is something that happens not only in establishments such as Burger King, it happens in many other bars and restaurants.
Solution: use your own cup for coffee. They won’t put you in any kind of trouble. Take your cutlery too. We buy metal ones that we use in all the restaurants avoiding taking new ones of plastic in every meal. We also take our sushi sticks with us. And no water bottles, please. Take yours. In the United States you are lucky enough to have free bathrooms, every few feet, in almost every city and tourist spot. There you’ll safely find a place to fill up with water. In restaurants it is free and you can refill your bottle too.
7.- XXL size food
Food waste is one of the biggest environmental problems. Because of the amount of energy used to produce it that ends up being wasted and because of the garbage waste that is generated unnecessarily. As you may have seen if you have already been to the United States, the food and drink rations are too large.
Solution: Be conservative. Don’t ask for three menus for three people; I ask only two to share and when you have finished think about whether you need more or it has been enough. We used to ask for two and accompany it with some “side”, garnish -potatoes, broccoli, coleslaw…- that you will find in the menu of all the food places. Always ask for the smallest version of the hamburger; I assure you it will be enough. The same goes for soda: even if you have a refill – you can refill your glass as many times as you like – you don’t have to use it. The environment will appreciate it and so will your hips…
8.- The power of big brands and big surfaces
Too often we focus responsible tourism only on the environmental problem. But you also have to bear in mind the importance of encouraging tourism and consumption that promotes the local economy and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits generated by tourism. Big brands and big cities will take more and more market share, sometimes being the only options in the most visited places.
Solution: look for alternatives. Balance your spending. It is normal that you try to find the most comfortable solution, but think that consuming in a bar or restaurant that is not a franchise you will be promoting a fairer and more sustainable economy. At the time of making the purchase there is a solution that we find in almost every place we visit: the “farmers market”. Even in L.A. you have one, in The Groove. The fruit and vegetables in them are spectacular and you will help strengthen local traders.
9.- Massive cultural attractions
Over-tourism in a destination like the USA is the order of the day. There are many of us who want to visit the same things. If you go to New York you will want to visit the Statue of Liberty; if your destination is Los Angeles you will want to go to the Hollywood fame walk; and if you travel to Florida you will surely have reserved a date for Magic Kingdom.
Solution: I won’t be the one to tell you not to visit the most emblematic places in those cities. But try to include in your agenda other museums and monuments less crowded. That instead of doing all your shopping in Disney Park, you also take some souvenirs in those smaller places. That’s why in our articles we always try to include alternative places. We believe it is important that you get to know them and visit them. Many will surprise you and it will be a good way to escape during a few hours of overcrowding and oppression.
10.- Leave the animals alone
In our last trip to the United States we have seen all kinds of animals: snakes, eagles, coyotes, raccoons, rabbits, desert rats, squirrels, roe deer… On many occasions you will find them in urban centers. They have become accustomed to our presence and our food.
Solution: leave them alone. Don’t burden them with photos. And the most important thing: respect the signs that specify that you should not feed the wild fauna. They are not the intruders, in most situations we will be.
Protecting the local fauna and flora is an obligation: listen to the posters.
Will you be a responsible tourist in the United States?
I am convinced that with a little effort you can achieve it. The most important thing is to have the will to correct and diminish our footprint when we travel. I have failed many times, don’t doubt it, but I keep trying every time I travel. Being a responsible tourist in the United States is complicated, but you can do it. The reward is enormous.